Four out of five homicides go unpunished in Mexico, in part because prosecutors and police focus on less serious cases that are easier to solve, a Mexican think tank's report said Monday.
That leads to extreme situations like the northern border state of Chihuahua, where researchers found 96.4 percent of killings go unpunished, based on comparisons of the annual rates for murders and convictions in 2010. That compares to what the study calls an unenviably high nationwide average of around 80 percent.
Police in one Chihuahua city, Ciudad Juarez, made headlines in December for ticketing a 6-year boy for reckless driving, driving without a license and not registering his miniature gasoline-powered motorbike, after he ran into an SUV, causing a minor dent.
Nor is that the only example. In another northern state, Nuevo Leon, where the murder rate soared 617 percent from 2009 to 2011, prosecutors issued arrest warrants this month for a pair of chefs who allegedly stole the recipes for grilled asparagus and artichokes from a restaurant they once worked for.
Mexico Evalua, a public policy research center, included the homicide figures in its report outlining the dismal state of anti-crime efforts in the country.
Based on studies of data compiled from state and federal government sources, the report said, "state public safety and criminal justice systems are focusing their attention on minor crimes, leaving few resources to focus on high-impact crimes."
"Their systems are overloaded, so they go after the easiest" cases, added Edna Jaime, director of Mexico Evalua. "Resources are being spent on very minor crimes, things like stealing cookies."
The study said that of all sentences handed down in state courts nationwide between 2009 and 2011, only 12 percent were for serious crimes like homicide, rape, extortion or kidnapping.
Elena Azaola, a researcher at the Center for Graduate Studies in Social Anthropology, said periodic surveys of inmates at prisons in Mexico City and the neighboring state of Mexico find that between 60 percent and 70 percent of them are arrested for minor robberies, often of goods valued at around 5,000 pesos ($400).
And once inside prison, relatively minor offenders face nightmarish conditions of overcrowding and violence that make them more likely to become career criminals. For example, Mexico Evalua's report said the murder rate for inmates in the violent border state of Tamaulipas was 7.7 per 1,000 prisoners in 2010.
Experts blamed understaffed, ill-trained and overloaded investigators, a rigid system that requires them to give essentially every crime the same priority, and lengthy, paper-based crime-reporting and trial procedures. Some states have implemented criminal justice reforms aimed at speeding up those processes and allowing leeway for non-prison sentences like probation or community service for lesser crimes.
"Crime reports are filed in just 13 percent of cases, and even just 13 percent is enough to overload the system," said Guillermo Zepeda, an expert at the Western Institute of Graduate Technological Studies.
"The system is so overloaded that it only works ... when a thief confesses to police," Zepeda said. "We are still operating like we were three centuries ago, with copies in triplicate."
Police corruption is a problem for Mexico as are poor training, well-armed criminals and low police budgets.
"When a victim reports a crime, they, like the detective, know that they are both wasting their time," Zepeda said.